In his book “Crazy Jobs”, the American anthropologist David Graeber argued that many people in the labor market are doing useless things simply because someone has tacitly decided that there is no way to do without them.
Graeber’s reasoning was recalled by developer Paul Butler – when he studied industries related to the Web 3.0 Internet of the future. One of the most popular is play-to-earn games. For example, in the Axie Infinity project: players breed and cross virtual “axie” creatures, swap and trade them, and fight other gamers.
Some gamers spend several hours a day in Axie Infinity, earning in-game currency and exchanging it for real money to pay their bills. “It makes them feel good, but it’s the delusional work that Graeber was talking about,” the developer notes.
In computer games, the term “grind” is the repeated repetition of uncomplicated but monotonous and boring actions that help achieve some goal: improving in-game performance. According to Butler, some of Axie Infinity’s “guests” equate it to a routine. The gameplay of many games depends on grind, including the metarun game.
Gaming giants like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft believe that such money-making projects are the gaming industry’s future. But few people refer to Axie Infinity as a game. It’s more often equated to a way to get rich or a tool for speculation.
Arianna Simpson, an investor in the a16z fund, confirms his theory. According to her, Axie Infinity’s in-game financial ecosystem is like the real economy. “I can get rich there, ask another player to do things for money that I don’t want to take on, or vice versa,” she says.
Axie Infinity is a game, a job, or a Ponzi scheme.
Gamers have been making money in games since at least 2005 – selling virtual goods in the online universe of Second Life, for example. But Axie Infinity has a few crucial differences, Butler believes:
In-game earnings have become almost her primary function, making a whole genre of play-to-earn spread.
Items in her online world are in the form of non-interchangeable tokens, NFT, so the internal economic system is supposedly decentralized.
First Difference: “Play to Earn.”
Unlike many other projects, Axie Infinity prioritizes users’ ability to monetize their time in the game and use the money in real life. According to the developers, work and entertainment should become one, and players should get the equal economic opportunity.
“Except that, by and large, those economic opportunities are a transfer of money from new players to existing players,” Butler concludes. To start the game, a new user must buy three “axis” creatures from the old one at once in the form of NFTs, which can cost more than $100 a piece, depending on their characteristics.
Players justify the expense because they can’t make money without them. And Axie Infinity developer Sky Mavis notes that the game is a kind of economy that depends partly on capital inflows, like any emerging market.
Except that Butler doesn’t see anything particularly “enticing” to give away $1,000 just for the chance to play the game. And neither do the 1,600 people surveyed on Reddit, who admitted they wouldn’t play Axie Infinity if they couldn’t make money.
By erasing the line between play and work, Axie Infinity has built a Ponzi scheme, the developer reflects. Not everyone will be left as a loser, and some probably play for fun – like in poker or sports betting. The only difference is that no one passes off betting as a way to save humanity from poverty.
Second difference: the NFT-economy
Virtual creature’s “axis” can be sold outside of the game and its store – for example, on the largest marketplace, OpenSea. This makes the player feel like the rightful owner of an NFT-asset.
The only problem is that the animals will lose value if the developer company Sky Mavis suddenly decides to block the owner’s account, notes Butler. They can be sold for a lower price because they are no more than just a picture without the gaming features.
Developers can also change the rules of battles, in which players “pump up” the characteristics of their creatures at their discretion. And they admit that they sacrificed some decentralization principles to reach a mass audience.
According to Butler, this directly contradicts the philosophy promoted by proponents of the Web 3.0 Internet, where companies and authorities cannot restrict users’ freedom. “Venture capitalists believe that earning games will be the future of the job market, except there’s no meaningful motivation to work in them yet. It’s like googling how to block someone on PayPal and then communicating with the person you wanted to block.” he reasoned.
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